When Sir Charles Mackerras — the famous operatic and concert conductor and probably the greatest musician Australia has produced — died in July the Prime Minister’s office refused to give him a state memorial service. Some amends were made during this year’s Edinburgh International Festival before the first of the two concerts there by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra: Jonathan Mills, the Australian director of the festival, the percussionist Colin Piper (one of the longest-serving SSO members), and a musician from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra — another of the ensembles nurtured by Mackerras — all paid moving tributes to him. They were followed by performances of music by two composers whom Mackerras especially revered: an aria from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, and a movement from the Sinfonietta by Janáček.
Sir Charles had particular authority in their works but his contribution to the festival was even more impressive: his first appearance was in 1952, conducting the Sadlers Wells Ballet, not long after his return from conducting studies in Prague (where he was first introduced to Janacek’s music), and he made a total of 87 additional appearances, more than any other artist or performer. He was, as Mills said, “almost a festival in himself”.
Mills also told the audience that his own first meeting with the great conductor was when he received a music award from him as a schoolboy at Sydney Grammar School (when the late Alastair Mackerras was headmaster). This personal touch told me something very significant about Australian music, though I cannot be confident that this could be recognised by that concert audience (which, incidentally, included the Australian high commissioner, the governor of NSW and the Czech consul-general).
It is probably the sort of lesson that we need to be abroad to appreciate: no matter how often we argue, engage in petty rivalries or harbour demeaning resentments, there is in every Australian city a real community in each branch of the arts. This is an important discovery but it also offers a challenge when faced with the obligation to make comparisons with the other orchestras and ensembles which appear at such festivals.
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This is not the place for and detained critique of the SSO’s playing, though two things were noteworthy about its concerts. One was the prominence — and the pride — given to Australian repertoire: Peter Sculthorpe’s gravely introspective Memento mori (1993) which is a meditation on the environmental catastrophe which overtook Easter Island, Ross Edwards’ violin concerto, Maninyas (1988) and Matthew Hindson’s fiercely-driven Energy (2009) — its motoric force recalls such post-Revolutionary Russian pieces as Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry. All three were received gratifyingly well by their audiences, as was Dene Olding’s supremely assured playing in the concerto.
Hence the second mystery: why (apart from the oddity of some of the remaining repertoire) did the SSO choose to tour with Hélène Grimaud and ignore the range of fine Australian musicians, several of them in no way inferior to this French woman? Such questions cannot be avoided.
After all, the almost-legendary Tokyo String Quartet had the confidence to give Sculthorpe’s newest quartet (his 18th) its European premiere in their concert and the Melbourne-based Duo Sol (pianist Caroline Almonte and violinist Miki Tsunoda) impressed everyone with their energised program which, in its second-half, juxtaposed music by Hindson and Edwards with Piazzolla and Adams: the Australian works revealed themselves as clearly superior.
Jonathan Mills gave his 2020 festival the title Oceans Apart. Oceans divide at least two sides and for Australians in Edinburgh there was just as much scope to learn about ourselves as there was for all of the others.